‘Airplane!’ director David Zucker on comedy

Last week I wrote something for Film.com about “Duck Soup,” the loony Marx Brothers movie from 1933. In discussing the influence the Marxes had on modern comedy, I mentioned the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team that made “Airplane!,” “Naked Gun,” and “Top Secret,” among other fine spoofs. To my great delight, David Zucker read the column and sent me an e-mail. With his permission, I reprint it here. Fans of comedy may find it instructive.


I enjoyed reading your article on the Marx Bros.’ “Duck Soup.” I was particularly intrigued by the reasons you listed for the movie’s failure at the box office.  But I can tell you from personal experience the most important reason:

I first saw “Duck Soup” in 1967 in a packed lecture hall at the University of Wisconsin where I was majoring in film. I loved it, the audience howled, but the Marxes and their writers made a critical mistake when they assumed a movie packed with great jokes would automatically gain box office success.  What the movie lacked was a story grounded in reality, with real characters for the audience to root for.

After it flopped, Irving Thalberg told Chico Marx during a card game one night that he and his brothers could have twice the success with half the jokes. Bringing the brothers to MGM, Thalberg suggested a real ballet setting, and added Allen Jones and Kitty Carlisle to the mix — main characters that the audience could care about. “A Night at the Opera” opened to the Marxes biggest grosses ever.  The ZAZ team went through the same process, (although in reverse) basing our “Airplane!” script on an Arthur Haley B movie, “Zero Hour.”  Audiences actually cared about Bob Hays and Julie Haggerty, so the movie was quite satisfying in the last five minutes when Ted Striker actually lands the plane and wins the love of Elaine Dickinson.

Taking the wrong lessons from the success of “Airplane!” we then created “Top Secret!”, on the assumption that, like Duck soup, if we just filled 85 minutes with great jokes, we would have another big hit.  We were wrong.  Many people consider “Top Secret!” to be as good or better a movie than “Airplane!” but I know different. It was 85 minutes of jokes without a real plot, character, or situations.  After it flopped at the box office, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took us in (without the card game) to Disney to direct “Ruthless People,” a movie ABOUT plot and character.  We learned the lesson, had another big hit, and subsequently applied it to all of our films after that.

While following the rule never guaranteed success, ignoring it certainly guaranteed failure.

David Zucker